“Life is largely a process of adaptation to circumstances in which we exist.”
— Hans Selye
Over his many years in practice observing the effects of stress on the neuromuscular system, Thomas Hanna identified three specific stress reflexes common to all humans. Impressed by the work of Hans Selye, whose work in endocrinology led to the formulation of the concept of stress and the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), Hanna discovered that as well as a bio-chemical response, there is a sensory-motor response to ongoing stress. This is of equal importance and to this day largely overlooked in modern healthcare.
Notably, the stress reflexes are involuntary (or unconscious) responses to both internal and external stimuli — even thoughts can trigger a somatic stress response! The reflexes are part of being human and are necessary for survival, but when they get ‘stuck on’ this leads to habitual muscular contraction that is below our level of consciousness. As Somatic Educators, we work with the following common stress reflex patterns. All three patterns have their roots in the ‘somatic centre’ — the waist, low back and abdomen, where powerful muscles connect the ribcage and vertebrae to the pelvis.
The Green Light reflex
I think of the Green Light reflex as the ‘to-do list’ or ‘get it done!’ reflex. It is an action response — the Go! reflex or ‘eustress’ as coined by Selye. eu- is the Greek prefix for good; he sought to show that stress is not always linked to negative scenarios (not all stress is negative). The Green Light reflex is necessary for forward movement (walking running and standing), involving an involuntary tightening of the muscles of the back (also known as the Landau reaction). When these muscles stay contracted this results in the ‘swayback’ or ‘archer’s bow’ curvature in the lower back. It is the reflex of effort; the main characteristics resemble a soldier at attention: tucked in neck, downward and backward pull of shoulders, anterior (forward) pelvic tilt, lifted chest, extended elbows, open hands and feet turned outwards (duck-like stance). It’s the posture of ‘stand up straight!’ or, in yoga, ‘mountain pose.’
The Red Light reflex
Also known as the withdrawal response or the startle response, this reflex is the primitive reflex of survival found in all vertebrates. It is the reflex of fear, the neuromuscular adaptation to ongoing negative stress or ‘distress,’ the opposite of the Green Light reflex. It occurs in response to anxiety, apprehension, or real or perceived threat — a rounding and shrinking inwards and downwards and increasingly occurs as a functional habituation; excessive use of a computer, tablet, phone or driving.
Characteristics are the neck pulled forwards, lifted and rounded shoulders (dowager’s hump) depressed (flattened) chest, tight abdominals and hip flexors, ribs draw down, compressing lungs and diapraghm, inhibited breath, feet turned inwards, posterior (backward) pelvic tilt.
The Trauma reflex
This reflex is a protective reflex that is meant to guard against and avoid pain. It involves an avoidance maneuver, a flinching away similar to how one would move quickly away from being tickled or if someone were holding a sparkler too near. It is also a tight protective muscular pattern around a point of injury or a postural compensation in response to injury (e.g. sitting on the same buttock after a fractured tailbone makes it painful to sit). It is common after accidents or surgeries.
It can also be due to functional habituation such as repeatedly carrying a child on one hip or repeatedly digging on one side. A Trauma reflex can occur in any part of the torso, top or bottom, front of back, left or right side. Characteristically it involves a side-bending and rotations in the pelvis, shoulders, back and neck. A habituated Trauma reflex involves leg-length discrepancy, uneven walk, balance issues and tight hips and knees. One resembles a car with one flat tyre! A habituated Trauma reflex can lead to functional scoliosis.
These patterns are hard-wired brainstem reflexes that are both useful and necessary for survival — but not when we get stuck in them due to habituation (our brains’ amazing adaptability has this downside too).
Somatic movement explorations are recreations of these three stress reflexes. With each somatic movement we move into the reflex pattern, then out of it slowly and consciously, with full attention to sensation, so our brains learn that they’re not stuck in in contraction. Then completely rest. This is pandiculation (see a separate post).
Engaging in a daily somatic movement practice enables your brain to recognize these patterns in daily life so that you can come out of them and return to equilibrium when the pattern is no longer useful. In being able to recognize these reflexes within your own soma you can learn to self-regulate your own nervous system. You gain a sense of empowerment, agency and resilience.